Woolvs: 'Spontaneity and trust are important in this band'

Willem Malfliet (2nd from the left) and his Woolvs.

The album Evening Planet was written, sung, recorded, produced and mixed by Brussels-based Willem Malfliet, in an open dialogue with the rest of Woolvs. “Because we are such good friends, the band is as much relaxation as effort for us.”

In 1961, Brel described how he took “tram trente-trois” with his Madeleine. In “Metadata”, one of the nine songs on Woolvs's debut album, Willem Malfliet sings about checking his mails on tram 51 on his way home. In the sixty years between the two songs, the world has undergone a metamorphosis, but Brussels has remained a source of inspiration and scenery. “The city is extremely present in my music, both in terms of content and form,” says Malfliet, who was born in Hamme, lived in Antwerp during his jazz guitar studies and has been based in the capital for almost four years now. “Four of the five musicians live in Brussels. All the music is written, rehearsed and recorded here. The lyrics come from observations I made here.”

He didn't know that Brel had smuggled in a tramline in a lyric verse long before him, but he finds it a blissful idea. “Both when I lived in Vorst/Forest and now, when I live near Anneessens, I have to take tram 51 to get home. The image of someone reading his mail on the tram is also very recognisable, but when you put it in words, it becomes something abstract at the same time and you start wondering: Should I really check those e-mails now, or would it be better to see who else is on the tram? Do you want to live in the now, or do you stay in your own little virtual space?” These are openings that Malfliet leaves in his associative texts, but does not want to impose on the listener.

In addition to jazz guitar in Antwerp, you also studied music performance in Copenhagen and music production in Ghent. Which of these do you think had the most influence on Evening Planet?
Willem Malfliet: It was just the combination of all that training that helped me master the whole musical process – from nothing to a finished record. I love my personal vocabulary on guitar. Jazz harmonies influence how I hear songs in my head, but not enough to be effectively jazz. The six months I spent in Copenhagen on an Erasmus scholarship especially felt like a privilege. In Belgium and most other European countries, people at school put you in the pigeonhole of jazz, pop/rock or classical. They did not make distinctions like that in Copenhagen. The focus was on artistic development, including long conversations about your work. I missed that in the more academic Belgian context, although I noticed during my music production studies in Ghent that more effort is being made to open things up here too.

Woolvs consists of three quarters of Bombataz – Vitja Pauwels on guitar, Ruben De Maesschalck on bass and Casper Van De Velde on drums – and Soet Kempeneer on keyboards. How did the band start exactly?
Malfliet: We've known each other since adolescence and have played together in different formations. In 2016 I started recording weird demos under the name Woolvs. Back then, the sound was even more synth-based. When I had to make music for a theatre piece I brought in Casper, like a force of nature on drums. Vitja and Ruben helped to translate the result into live music. This is how Woolvs slowly evolved into the intuitive and organic collective it is today. Last year, Soet joined on keyboards. With his very sound-focused approach, he turned out to be the missing piece of the puzzle. These days, I don't want to come to a rehearsal with a demo with all the parts already filled in. It would take all the fun out of it. A fragment of text or a melody is sometimes enough material for ending up with a new song half an hour later. It has become an open dialogue, as I also strived for in Come Hang, the collective improvisation I set up with various musicians for the music house Volta in Anderlecht. Spontaneity and complete trust in your fellow musicians were important for both of those. Because we are such good friends at Woolvs, the band is as much relaxation as it is effort.

For a city dweller, there's a suspicious amount of nature in your lyrics. Where does this fixation for planets, water, trees, flowers...come from?
Malfliet: I see nature as something constantly in motion, contrasting with static, man-made things. Nowhere is that more obvious than in a city. I lived near the Dudenpark/Parc Duden for a long time. There, I was often struck by the great difference between the trees and the buildings. But it was not necessarily my intention to write a record about nature. My texts originate from observations, often during walks through Brussels. I am a compulsive walker. There is an almost natural reflex to turn inwards when I'm walking through a constantly moving scene. I then automatically start to make associations. Depending on the direction I walk, it becomes a different experience... But: 99 percent of the times I go hiking I don't write a song. (Laughs)

If, as a listener, you diligently put all your associative concoctions together, then there is no escaping that there also is a kind of social involvement.
Malfliet: I've never written a text with a fixed idea. But that doesn't mean it's not a socially engaged record. But one open for interpretation. I wrote “Sweat” at the time of the Black Lives Matter protests on the Poelaertplein/place Poelaert. Suddenly realising “Shit, I haven't dealt with that topic in a long time” and the remorse afterwards, it all seeps through, even though the rest of the song is about something else. Or take “We're just in time to be late / In a dance of morals and faith,” from “Metadata”: that could be about the climate as well as how power structures work. Every generation has a sense that something has to change. The injustice that young people are now addressing is a new step in a collective revolution. Not necessarily an upward revolution, because social movements are like waves. The upward one pushes another one away, which is then bounced back...

The stream of consciousness with which you link your thoughts together also typifies the videos that visual artist Julie Van Kerckhoven filmed with you.
Malfliet: These clips are all chapters of one long video. For the entire length of the album, Julie has made a chain of associative images that question the music as an extra layer. For each video, she opens a completely new set of images. She sometimes comes up with things that surprise even me (Malfliet and Van Kerckhoven are a couple, Ed.). I would never have thought, for instance, that she would film miniature trains with her handycam in Train World. But she saw a steam locomotive in the sunny dub groove of “Earth”.

You clearly don't want to limit yourself to one genre. We recently saw your name appear under the pseudonym Willy M. and as a musician in Onzin. Tell us about it.
Malfliet: Onzin is the group that makes music around the lyrics of the Antwerp language artist-rapper Zino Moons, a former housemate. The album we recorded live with me on synth guitar bundles eighteen crazy punk-hip-hop tracks in half an hour and is currently being mastered. Willy M. originates from a support act I once played for Bombataz in Volta. Before that, I started sampling long pieces of songs by, for instance, Ann Christy and Will Tura in a shameless way. I make a chorus with my own lyrics based on an outro, while constantly playing with the tension between what is original and what is not. A first EP will follow this autumn.

Digital version available now, vinyl and video release on 1/5,
Facebook: woolvsband

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